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A talk given at the Aquarium of the Pacific by Bill Burnett, written by Nick Strain, CFP®, CPWA®, AIF®.

What should freshman in college, mid-career executives who are contemplating a change, and people transitioning into retirement share in common?

Bill Burnett, co-author of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life, gave a compelling presentation that challenged people of all ages to determine what truly matters to them when charting a new direction for their lives. He believes we should be constantly considering our options for approaching work, play, love, and health that will make us more fulfilled, and in the process, help other people in our lives.

Designing Your Life lays out a prototype, creative process that can be used by anyone —from college students to those already in retirement – who wants to “build a well-lived joyful life.” This is particularly relevant in preparing ourselves for, and getting the most out of, the increasingly longer, healthier lives projected for our society.

How many people do you meet who say they love their job? Gallup polls over the years consistently reveal that the majority of Americans are not engaged with their work and workplace. In Bill’s perspective, people stay at unrewarding jobs because of dysfunctional beliefs, such as ‘your college degree determines your career,’ or ‘it’s too late to make a change.’ These dysfunctional beliefs hold us back.

It’s time to think differently

In designing our lives, we should:

  • Reframe what’s not working, looking at all aspects from multiple angles
  • Create radical collaboration with people to understand alternatives
  • Have a bias toward action
  • Be mindful of process. This includes accepting the problem – empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing – and then continuing to ideate and create different prototypes. Then test again, continuing this process to create more ideas.

In his book, Bill suggests that you explore and write out your Work View and Life View to help you build a compass for what is important in your life. What is consistent between these two perspectives? What areas are not consistent?

Weekly Activity – Good Time Journal

Bill recommended that people track their activities and rate them in terms of engagements and energy. He shared his own past efforts in improving the activities that he didn’t enjoy as much, exploring why and whether he could make changes for the better. For example, he moved his open office hours at Stanford University away from his office to an open, less formal meeting for coffee with his students, which created better conversations. And he switched his calendar to include an activity on Fridays that he enjoyed to end the week on a high note.

Work, Play, Love, Health

Most people talk about their work-life balance. In Bill’s view, people need to expand the categories and evaluate where they are in each to see if improving one category might elevate everything. He gave a great example: After rating his Work, Play, Love, Health categories, his “Play” category was low, so he and his wife started taking Tango classes together. This broke up the week with a pursuit that was fun, interesting, and personally challenging. This dance class also increased his Love category – for obvious reasons.

Career Scenarios – “Odyssey Plans”

For those intent on a career change, Bill suggests exploring three totally separate possible careers:

  1. Current Career – How can you excel in your current career? Who might be a good resource for guidance or inspiration?
  2. Imagine that AI and robots have wiped out your profession – what would be your backup career?
  3. What is your “wild card” career if money was not of concern and you didn’t care what people thought?

The most important part of this process, he says, is to talk to people about these scenarios to determine how to be successful in each. Someone has done what you are thinking about doing. Find those people and learn from their experiences and mistakes. Rate each scenario based on your resources, how you would like the new career, how much confidence you have in the plan. And don’t neglect coherence: Does this plan make sense in terms of your Work View and Life View?

Small Achievable Changes

Last, but probably most important, aim for small, achievable changes during this process. Bill offered great advice: Don’t set a goal to run a marathon if you’re currently not running. Your goal should be to jog a couple times a week and build on that success. Create a vision for the future, but break up that vision into smaller incremental parts and create achievable goals to set yourself up for success.

For more information or questions, please contact Halbert Hargrove at